A common trope in horror films is the inclusion of main or minor characters who make poor decisions, either out of sheer terror or because they are simply mannequins being pulled by the writer’s strings. Whatever the reason may be for these clumsy acts (characters dropping their weapons, tripping, splitting up, ignoring warnings, or simply giving the villains the upper hand), seeing them often becomes infuriating and tiring.
Most characters in horror films act so irrationally or illogically that it’s difficult to believe there are still intelligent ones. However, some films have featured characters who defy these horror movie tropes by acting quickly but thoughtfully, assessing situations, and determining the best ways to fight back. Ellen Ripley in Aliens and Erin in You’re Next, among others, deserve to be recognized for their cleverness in dealing with their adversaries almost entirely on their own.
‘Get Out’ (2017)
Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to visit her parents at their isolated lake house and he notices her their awkward behavior toward him. Not only that, but the servants at the lake house seem strange, and Chris ends up discovering something dark and disturbing about the wealthy family.
Get Out is no regular teen jump-scare horror, but features intelligent protagonists and villains, as Jordan Peele must have intended. Despite being hypnotized into a catatonic state for months, Chris manages to save himself and also slaughters the villains too. Chris’s cleverness was the only reason he could escape the Armitage home full of intelligent and manipulative villains.
This American cult horror franchise started with a movie created by Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven that features a ghost-faced murderer on the loose. Scream follows Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her school friends who are being targeted by a mysterious Halloween killer. As the body counts increase, Sidney finds it harder to trust those around her because anyone could be the killer.
Scream was one of the very first horror films to break free from the common trope of dim-witted characters in horror films and introduced astute characters into the mainstream. The majority of characters do the right thing and are quite resourceful. From Joel Jones (Duane Martin) who flees until the killers are no more, book smart Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) to Sidney Prescott who outsmarts killers at every turn, there is no shortage of intelligent characters on Scream.
‘You’re Next’ (2011)
During a reunion, a group of masked assailants attacks an estranged family, and they must band together to fight this uncanny threat from the woods or die. The joyous family occasion is shattered until the main character Erin (Sharni Vinson) showed she knew the secret to defeating the killers.
It was a delight to watch Erin organize the family defenses, set traps, and gather weapons as she turned the tables on these villains in You’re Next. Her survivalist upbringing plays a vital role in delivering a character who is astute, a tough fighter and is not subject to silly horror movie tropes. She is unquestionably one of the characters in horror slasher movies that almost every viewer will cheer on for her smartness.
‘The Thing’ (1982)
An American scientific expedition in Antarctica is disrupted by an overhead helicopter shooting at a dog. After the helicopter explodes and the Norwegians chasing after the dog end up dead, the Americans are left with the deadly creature, which they discover has the ability to shape-shift.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is filled with well-written, intelligent characters who kept a cool head despite being isolated and under intense stress. They deduce facts and devise strategies to avoid getting infected by the mutating alien creature. One character who performs admirably is MacReady (Kurt Russell), he is neither a scientist nor a doctor, but his suspicious and aggressive nature served him well in defeating one of the most cunning horror movie villains, Blair (Wilford Brimley) and the Thing.
‘The Descent’ (2005)
This British Horror film follows six women who enter a cave and discover there are underground predators who love eating human flesh. These women are trapped in a claustrophobic cave and they must fight these vicious humanoids called crawlers or die.
The well-written smart characters in The Descent have helped many recognize what a scary movie really is. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) fights tooth and nail to survive this horrific event – but she’s not the only one who is a smart or competent character, as others are also depicted as tough explorers ready to fight for their survival.
The crew of Nostromo is faced with a deadly alien invasion in Aliens in the form of giant, bloodthirsty beasts. The iconic Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must fight to save her crew members from the deadly attack while also preventing Ash from delivering the vicious creature to earth.
Ellen Ripley’s series of wise decisions and resourcefulness are the reasons she survives to the very end, while her crew members’ refusal to heed her sound advice led to their gruesome ends. Ripley is undeniably one of the smartest and bravest characters in horror movies.
‘Dog Soldiers’ (2002)
A squad of British soldiers is on a training mission when they discover that werewolves are active in the region. Trapped and hunted by these vicious creatures in the vast Scottish wilderness, these soldiers must be prepared for a tough fight for survival.
Written and directed by Neil Marshall, Dog Soldiers proves to be a must-see werewolf movie with an ensemble of intelligent and tough characters like Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd), Spoon (Darren Morfitt), and Pvt. Joe Kirkley (Chris Robinson) and Capt. Ryan (Liam Cunningham). Once a dumb character is killed off, other soldiers make tactical decisions to keep themselves safe. To defend themselves against these unexpected enemies, they employ practical methods and logic.
‘Lights Out’ (2016)
Growing up, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) was always haunted by an unknown terror in the dark, and now her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is experiencing the same. Delving deeper into the mystery, Rebecca realizes that this mysterious figure in the dark has an attachment to their mum and that all their lives are in danger.
Rebecca and the other characters don’t act carelessly as is common in most horror movies. These characters respond to issues like real people would rather than as helpless and terrified victims waiting to be attacked.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
A novelist, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) to an isolated Overlook hotel in The Shining. Danny’s special gift allows him to see into the future and the past. As the family tries to settle in, they soon discover there’s a darkness in the hotel that drives Jack mad.
Wendy may be wild, but she is a brave mum who not only saves herself but also her son from his murderous father. She is certainly one hero never to be underestimated, and even the villains Grady and Jack attest to her strong will and ingenuity. Danny is as smart as his mother and his act of re-tracing his footsteps in the snow, which led to Jack’s death, is really clever.
‘The Invisible Man’ (2020)
Cecelia (Elizabeth Moss) is convinced that her abusive ex is stalking her in The Invisible Man, but no one believes her because he supposedly died by suicide. Since the police officers refuse to believe her troubling tale, she summons the courage to figure out what’s really going on and fight back for herself.
Cecelia never for one second let her guard down or even underestimated the villain. She is aware of his capabilities and uses his own weapon against him. She’s no screaming, defenseless female character, instead, she is tough and ready to play the villain’s game even better than him.